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GE Aviation opens factories to mass-produce materials for ceramic matrix composites

News International-French

22 Jun 2016

In a ceremony with Alabama public officials, GE Aviation broke ground on two adjacent factories to mass-produce silicon carbide (SiC) materials used to manufacture ceramic matrix composite components (CMCs) for jet engines and land-based gas turbines for electric power.

GE Aviation is investing more than $200 million to construct two factories on 100 acres in Huntsville. When the factories are fully operational later this decade, they are expected to employ up to 300 people. The plants are expected to be completed by the first half of 2018. Production begins in 2018. GE expects to begin hiring the hourly workforce later this year.

"GE Aviation is creating a fully integrated supply chain for producing CMC components in large volume, which is unique to the United States," said Sanjay Correa, vice president who leads the industrialization of advanced technologies at GE Aviation. "The new factories in Alabama are vital to this strategy. We are deeply gratified by the tremendous local, state, and national support for this effort."

While meeting critical U.S. needs for CMC materials for commercial and government-funded programs, the new plants will support GE and its international partners in selling and supporting jet engines and gas turbines worldwide. For example, approximately 61% of GE Aviation's 2015 revenues of $25 billion were derived from customers based outside the United States. GE and its partner companies sell most 70% of its commercial jet engines to non-U.S. companies.

One plant of the Huntsville plants will produce silicon carbide (SiC) ceramic fiber. It will be the first such operation in the United States. Today, the only large-scale SiC ceramic fiber factory in the world is operated by NGS Advanced Fibers in Japan, which is a joint company of Nippon Carbon, GE, and Safran of France.

The second factory will use this SiC ceramic fiber to produce the unidirectional CMC tape necessary to fabricate CMC components.

An advanced materials revolution in jet propulsion
The use of lightweight, heat-resistant CMCs in the hot section of GE jet engines is a breakthrough for the jet propulsion industry. CMCs comprise SiC ceramic fibers in a SiC matrix, enhanced by proprietary coatings.

With one-third the density of metal alloys, these ultra-lightweight CMCs reduce the overall engine weight. Further, their high-temperature properties greatly enhance engine performance, durability and fuel economy. CMCs are far more heat resistant than metal alloys, hence requiring less cooling air in the engine's hot section. By using this air instead in the engine flow path, an engine runs more efficiently.

For more than 20 years, scientists at GE's Global Research Centers and GE's industrial businesses have worked to develop CMCs for commercial applications. The best-selling LEAP engine, being developed by CFM International, the 50/50 joint company of GE and Safran Aircraft Engines of France, is the first commercial jet engine to use CMCs in the high-pressure turbine section. The LEAP engine, with more than 10,500 orders and commitments, is currently completing certification testing. It is scheduled to enter airline service next year powering the Airbus A320neo and in 2017 powering the Boeing 737 MAX.

The Alabama plants: from ceramic fiber to ceramic tape to CMC components
Producing CMCs requires complex processing steps using a synthetically produced compound of silicon and carbon. The two GE Aviation factories being established are involved in separate steps in the process - the production of SiC ceramic fibers and the production of SiC ceramic tape.

About the ceramic fiber plant:
Supported by funding ($21.9 million) from the U.S. Air Force Research Lab Title III Office, this plant will increase U.S. capability to produce SiC ceramic fiber capable of withstanding temperatures of 2400°F.

The SiC ceramic fibers plant will license fiber-producing technology from NGS Advanced Fibers Co. in Japan, a joint company formed in 2012 with Japan's Nippon Carbon (with 50% ownership in NGS), GE (25% ownership), and Safran Ceramics of France (25% ownership). NGS, which already produces SiC fibers for GE's CMC components, is establishing a second factory in Japan to increase capacity to meet growing demand. The GE fiber plant in Huntsville will complement the growing capacity at NGS.

Once the Huntsville plant is operational, it will sell fiber to the U.S. Department of Defense, GE businesses, Safran and other outside customers subject to U.S. regulations. It will be the first U.S.-based factory to produce SiC ceramic fiber on a large industrial scale. The two other NGS partners will ultimately have the opportunity to become equity partners in the Huntsville plant.

About the CMC tape operation:
This adjacent plant, financed solely by GE, will apply proprietary coatings to the ceramic fiber and form them into a matrix to produce CMC tape. The ceramic tape will be used by GE Aviation at its new CMC manufacturing site in Asheville, N.C., which opened in 2014. The Asheville facility fabricates CMC shrouds for the LEAP engine's high-pressure turbine section.

In addition, GE's Power and Water business is testing CMCs in its newest and most efficient, air-cooled gas turbine. At GE Power and Water's new Advanced Manufacturing Works facility in Greenville, SC, prototype CMC components are being built to replace super alloys in large gas turbines.

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